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County looks to flip the switch on light pollution

Bill would update rules on lighting to help protect wildlife

The Hawaiian petrel is one of the native birds that the Maui County Council is hoping will benefit from a proposed bill to regulate light pollution that conservationists say distracts wildlife and puts them at risk. — EMILY SEVERSON photo

As light pollution worsens in Maui County and continues to threaten native Hawaiian seabirds that become “disoriented by artificial lights,” officials and conservationists are pushing to dim brightness, direct fixtures towards the ground and use warmer colors, among other solutions.

A Maui County Council committee is considering a bill that would revise and update the county’s existing light ordinance. Climate Action, Resilience and Environment Committee Chairperson Kelly King said that the purpose is to protect the Hawaiian petrels, especially during the months of September through December, often referred to as “fallout” season to describe the time of year when young seabirds leave the nest for the first time but are distracted by onshore sources of man-made light, like street lamps, porch lights, headlights and large stadium lights.

These nocturnal birds may circle for hours until they fall from the sky exhausted, putting them at risk of predation by cats, mongoose and other predators, as well as vehicle collisions, King said during the committee’s meeting on Wednesday.

“It’s crucial that we continue to seek creative ways, like with Bill 21 to update outdoor lighting codes, to effectively protect the multitude of amazing species we’re so lucky to have here on Maui,” she said.

Concerns over light pollution and their impacts on wildlife have led to environmental advocates taking action; earlier this month the Conservation Council for Hawaii and the Center for Biological Diversity filed a federal lawsuit over the Grand Wailea’s “bright lights,” which they said are attracting Hawaiian petrels and “leading to their grounding and death.”

Naturally, Maui County has seen an increase in light pollution as the island’s development and human populations grow, said Jay Penniman, manager of the Maui Nui Seabird Recovery Project.

“We’re losing our dark night skies and this bill really can work toward rectifying that loss,” Penniman said. “Only in the last 100 years have we really introduced all of this nighttime lighting and we really need to work on limiting it for our own health as well as the animals and plants.”

Healthy seabird colonies play a crucial role in coastal resilience and fertilizing watersheds, he added, so “changing our lighting regime at night is really important” and would reduce disorientation among the petrels during key maturation periods.

Richard Wainscoat, an astronomy professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa who leads efforts to discover near-earth objects with the Pan-STARRS telescopes atop Haleakala, added that blue- and green-rich LED light is “damaging” for astronomy and wildlife.

The existing ordinance does not offer protection from blue-rich light, which is not effective for research and surveillance atop Haleakala, he said, suggesting that many of Maui’s street lights are “overlit,” which wastes energy.

From the summit, Wainscoat said that the western skies are “severely compromised” by artificial light as opposed to the eastern skies.

The proposed updates in the bill would require all outdoor lighting fixtures, except for neon, to be faced down as to not allow light to shine above the horizontal angle; wall-mounted fixtures to have opaque shields to direct all light down, which also means they cannot have bulbs visible from above; and wall surfaces to be nonreflective if the light hits a wall surface.

The bill would allow no more than 5 percent of visible emissions less than 550 nanometers; warmer temperatures and long-wavelength light above 550 nanometers is less distracting for wildlife, Penniman said.

Light fixtures would be required to be mounted as low as possible while still complying with existing lighting and safety standards to limit light from escaping and reflecting off ground surfaces.

The bill calls for motion detectors or automatic timers at certain facilities, like public pools, so that lights are only used when necessary.

Existing rules in the Maui County Code already prohibit mercury vapor in new outdoor lighting fixtures or in the replacement of existing outdoor lighting fixtures.

The Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that there are up to 30,000 total petrels living and breeding in the higher elevations and steep slopes of the Main Hawaiian Islands, with an estimated 4,000 breeding pairs left among a population size between 8,000 to 10,000 petrels residing within Maui’s Haleakala National Park, according to the National Park Service.

Jeff Bagshaw of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, who spoke as a private citizen on Wednesday, said that these seabirds are critical to the island’s watersheds by naturally fertilizing the soils with marine nutrients in their droppings, and are also historically and culturally significant for their uses with navigating and fishing.

“Light pollution is a growing problem, exponentially on Maui, and it’s getting worse every night,” Bagshaw said. “This bill not only tries to eliminate both types of wavelengths and the types of the illumination, but it has a replacement schedule for problematic sources that are already out there in use.”

A few members of the Maui Nui Seabird Recovery project testified on Wednesday morning to reiterate the cultural and environmental importance of Hawaiian seabirds.

The majority agreed that it’s possible to address light pollution, without compromising public safety, including Emily Severson, who handles community outreach at Maui Nui Seabirds.

“It’s great to see legislation like this up on the agenda because it can really do so much to push forward the work that a lot of organizations are doing,” said Field Crew Lead Martin Frye, who also testified as a private citizen. “We have so many seabirds that we often don’t see around here that we would probably see a lot more if we had a dark, nighttime sky.”

Wildlife biologist Joy Tamayose of the National Park Service said that she has seen the benefits of protection and management over her 30 years of bird conservation work experience, including with the Hawaiian petrels.

“This lighting ordinance will definitely be something that is important for conservation of our native wildlife, not just seabirds,” Tamayose said. “We can definitely take advantage of ideas that people have and things that have worked and make it work for Maui County.”

King deferred the bill to make revisions as well as to seek further comment from other agencies like the county Department of Parks and Recreation and the Maui Police Department to address safety concerns.

* Dakota Grossman can be reached at dgrossman@mauinews.com.

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